Back in the 1990s there was a show on MTV called Behind the Music. Each episode focused on a different musical act and followed a fairly standard formula - struggle, success, scandal, excess, drink, drugs, divorce, distress, followed by redemption and often revival.
However, one episode was devoted to Gloria Estefan, who did not fit the template at all. Estefan married her first boyfriend, Emilio, and they're still married four decades later. The couple have two children and recently became grandparents.
Estefan's life and career are pretty scandal-free; the only time the singer hit the headlines in a sensationalist way was when she almost died in a horrific car crash in March 1990. Estefan's tour bus collided with another large vehicle while driving through a snowstorm. The singer, who was returning from a meeting with President George Bush Snr, suffered a fractured spine. Her nine-year-old son was also injured.
The prognosis wasn't good and Estefan had to have two titanium rods inserted into her back to support her spinal column. The doctors predicted a full year of intensive physical therapy before she would be fully recovered but she was back on the road 10 months later.
Since then Estefan has won three Grammy Awards (a fraction of her husband's 19) and a Presidential Medal of Freedom and been inducted into the US Songwriters Hall of Fame; she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as does Emilio.
The couple's partnership has extended beyond the music industry: they own several restaurants, have their own line of food products and run a multi-media agency. Apart from their autobiographical musical On Your Feet! - coming to Dublin next month - both have penned several books. While Estefan managed to avoid drugs, divorce and debt, there was a great deal of struggle before success, which On Your Feet! partly details.
The show following the personal and professional relationship of Gloria and Emilio is a jukebox musical showcasing all Estefan's biggest hits including Conga, Rhythm is Gonna Get You, Don't Wanna Lose You Now and of course Get On Your Feet.
Now there's nothing wrong with jukebox musicals - they're very successful for good reason as they showcase the music of an artist in a live setting and usually they're great fun.
On Your Feet! is a typical jukebox musical, with Estefan and Miami Sound Machine's hits presented by a talented cast. The singing is great, the dancing is awe-inspiring and the main actors are so believable that you forget that they're not the people they're portraying. Small wonder the show has been a hit in the West End and on Broadway and has been touring for years, and most likely will continue for years to come.
But this show goes far deeper than song and dance. This show is the story of emigrants and as such will resonate with Irish audiences. It's also centred around matriarchal figures that will be familiar in Ireland: the indulgent granny, the demanding mammy, the dumped-on responsible daughter and the flighty baby sister.
Estefan is the responsible daughter. Born Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia, she arrived in the US from Cuba when she was only two. Gloria's parents had been pretty well off but that all changed when they arrived in Florida. Estefan's mother, known as Big Gloria, had a PhD in Cuba but had to start again from scratch in her adopted home. Gloria's father joined the US Army and fought in Vietnam. When he came home he was suffering with a degenerative illness that left him incapable of self-care. His condition was subsequently attributed to exposure to Agent Orange.
With Big Gloria trying to feed the family and regain her lost qualifications, it fell to young Gloria to look after her father, her sister and the housework. This is the point where On Your Feet! begins.
Soon teenage Gloria meets Emilio Estefan, another ambitious and hardworking immigrant. Emilio fled Cuba with his father at the age of 14 and throughout the show much fun is made about his strong accent, with people telling him they don't speak Spanish only for an outraged Emilio to reply "I'm speaking English!" (Again this is something that generations of Irish emigrants can relate to.)
Emilio's mother stayed behind in Cuba as she was worried about her own parents; it was another four years before she was able to reunite with her husband and son. It was nine years after that again before Emilio's older brother left Cuba. Emilio and his father spent a year living in poverty in Spain before arriving in Miami, where they shared very overcrowded lodgings with extended family members.
When you see the Estefans' stories, so superbly portrayed in this production, it becomes obvious that the music they produced together could not have emerged from any other background at any other time.
Gloria's granny pushes her to follow her musical ambitions, in part because she regrets letting Big Gloria's father curb her own showbiz dreams. Granny also encourages Gloria's romance with Emilio, who Big Gloria disapproves of. Big Gloria takes a dim view of a lot of things. Madalena Alberto, who plays the role, isn't just good at belting out a tune but is a talented and nuanced actor. The audience can feel her disappointment and bitterness; she had a lovely life and suddenly it was all ripped away from her and she went from relative privilege to being just another immigrant, scrabbling to make ends meet.
Big Gloria does not want her daughter to pursue a life in the music industry and it's understandable: she wants her child to have the stability that her life lacked. Given that Gloria was gigging with Miami Sound Machine while also working as an interpreter (and toiling at home) and still managed to get a degree from the University of Miami, it's fairly obvious she was capable of having any career she wanted. It's not hard to sympathise with her mother.
However, any sympathy Big Gloria gains is squandered when, unimpressed by her daughter's continued success, she stops speaking to her. The first act ends dramatically with Gloria's near-fatal crash; act two begins with her in a hospital seriously injured, with doctors unsure if she'll survive. Big Gloria arrives in a panicked state and at this point I was so involved in the show I wanted to shout at her for being so pig-headed and ignoring her own child for the previous few years. Again all credit to Alberto.
The staging and choreography are very well thought-out, and in the second act this becomes particularly noticeable.
In a dream sequence the opening scenes are reprised, but instead of the vibrant colours and movement of the first act, the actors are all in white and moving in slow motion. It's a brilliant bit of theatre.
I wasn't an Estefan fan before On Your Feet! but that has changed. Gloria has been warning me for the past 30 years that the rhythm was gonna get me. She was right. It has!
On Your Feet! The story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is coming to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from April 21-25, tickets from €18.50, available through Ticketmaster. See www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie for more details.
The cast of 'On Your Feet' and, below, Gloria and Emilio
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